As iconic to New York as the yellow taxi, a garlicky grilled sausage on a sliced bun with spicy mustard and sharp sauerkraut is engrained in the city’s culinary identity.

In New York City, the hot dog is as iconic as the yellow taxi. For locals, one bite triggers memories of sand-strewn lunches on the beaches of Coney Island or the smell of just-cut grass and yeasty beer at a summer baseball game. A garlicky grilled sausage served on a sliced bun with spicy mustard and sharp sauerkraut is engrained in the city’s culinary identity. But like so much of New York’s history, the hot dog’s ancestry lies elsewhere.

Heiss dog
A hot dog is a frankfurter-style sausage that is made of ground pork, beef or a combination of the two, flavoured with garlic, mustard, nutmeg and other spices, gut-encased, then cured, smoked and cooked. And though the sausage has been around for 20,000 years, the modern frankfurter has roots in German-speaking Europe. One story credits a Viennese butcher with its creation in 1805. Others say that spiced and smoked sausage was first introduced in Frankfurt in 1852 and named after its hometown.

Whatever its true origins, during the second half of the 1800s Germans had a love for frankfurters that they carried with them when they came to the United States, making it a mainstay of European immigrant households. By the American Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865, New York butcher shops were regularly preparing and carrying the smoked sausages. 

But a frankfurter is not a hot dog until it is on a bun. And in 1870, Brooklyn-based Charles Feltman made that legendary move. A German immigrant, Feltman began his career pushing a pie cart in Brooklyn’s seaside neighbourhood of Coney Island. To meet customer demands for a hot sandwich, he switched from pies to sausages and began forking them onto a roll at lunch hour. The rest is hot dog history.

The original
Starting from that fateful moment when the sausage met the bun, Feltman built an empire around his humble invention. Soon, he was selling thousands of hot dogs a year to hungry beachgoers, first from carts and then from restaurants, beer gardens, bars and more. By 1920, his Ocean Pavilion restaurant was touted as the largest in the world. But it was a Polish immigrant named Nathan Handwerker that made Coney Island as synonymous with the hot dog as it is today.

A one-time employee of Feltman’s, in 1916 Handwerker opened his own stand in the neighbourhood and sold hot dogs for five cents each based on a secret recipe cooked up by him and his wife, Ida. By charging half of what Feltman charged, they won over Coney Island’s working class residents, opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant and soon eclipsed Feltman as the go-to hot dog stop. That same Nathan’s – formally known as Original Nathan’s Famous Frankfurters – remains a landmark today.

Every 4 July, the country turns their focus to that original Nathan’s for the Nathan’s International Hot Dog-Eating Contest, an annual competition featuring dozens of men and women who compete to down the most hot dogs in 10 minutes. Joey Chestnut is the current record holder with a whopping 68 hot dogs and buns.

Regardless of the season, any New York hot dog jaunt must include a trip to Coney Island to taste Nathan’s firsthand. Resting along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, Coney Island’s wooden boardwalk is peppered with rickety amusement rides, old school arcades and candy shops from decades past. Stop in at Nathan’s to order a hot dog with chilli, onions and mustard and eat outside where you can taste the brininess of the salted air coming off the ocean for an experience like Handwerker would have had. 

Though Hurricane Sandy badly affected Coney Island’s shoreline in October 2012, forcing the restaurant to close for the first time in its history, the original Nathan’s is set to reopen in May 2013 just in time for summer beachgoers.

From the streets
Back in Manhattan, walk down most streets and you will find silver hot dog carts parked on sidewalk corners, their yellow-blue-and-red striped umbrellas dotting the cityscape. In equal parts disparaging and loving, New Yorkers refer to these as “dirty water dogs” for the warm water the hot dogs rest in before being plucked into a typically stale white bun. Still, the hot dog tradition had its roots in pushcarts – not only in Brooklyn but also in Manhattan’s Bowery neighbourhood, where hungry workers during the turn of the 19th Century clamoured for the hot dog vendors’ cheap eats.

Any visitor to New York is pretty much obliged to dig in, while keeping flavour expectations to a minimum. At some of the larger halal street vendors, tastier grilled hot dogs basted in butter are offered alongside kebabs and falafel. Look for the carts with long lines during lunch and you may have stumbled upon a local treasure.

Legendary favourites
If you want to be guaranteed a classic New York hot dog that will keep you coming back time and again, make a beeline to Papaya King. Just as with Nathan’s, there is only one original, so forgo imposters and tuck into the eatery in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Papaya King is less a restaurant and more a white- and yellow-tiled storefront where in-the-know New Yorkers line up to order garlicky hot dogs topped with tart sauerkraut and washed down with papaya, mango or banana fruit juice. This now timeless combination traces back to 1932, when Greek immigrant Gus Poulus opened the shop Hawaiian Tropical Drinks. Though his fruit juices were not the success he hoped for, it was during this time that he met his German-American wife who introduced him to the frankfurter. Poulus soon began selling them alongside his tropical smoothies and 80 years later, they are still some of the best in the city. Hot dogs here are flavourful, rich and buttery with an extra kick of spice. The bun is lightly toasted, the frankfurter grilled and the casing all-natural, creating the perfect “snap” in your mouth with each bite.

Another local favourite will take you downtown to Manhattan’s Lower East Side neighbourhood. It is here at Katz’s Delicatessen that newly immigrant Jewish families would come together on Friday nights for “franks and beans” in the 1880s. It is here too that actors and comedians congregated after hours during the peak of the Yiddish theatre in the late 19th Century. And it is here that today, one can enjoy all-beef, kosher hot dogs, grilled, salty and spicy.

Haute dogs
Not all New York hot dog joints date from the turn of the century, however. At Crif Dogs in Manhattan’s East Village, the naturally-smoked beef- and pork-mix frankfurters are deep fried and topped with an array of unexpected ingredients in modern interpretations of the classic. Try the Tsunami, a bacon-wrapped dog with teriyaki, pineapple and green onions. Or merge two New York institutions into one with the Jon-Jon Deragon, which is a hot dog topped with cream cheese, scallions and “everything bagel” seeds. 

For a contemporary riff on the classic Jewish delicatessen, travel to Mile End in Brooklyn’s smart Boerum Hill neighbourhood. At this four-year-old Montreal-inspired hotspot, hot dogs are handmade with antibiotic and hormone-free beef sourced from a local butcher. To make the no-filler hot dogs, whole cut brisket is ground in-house, flavoured with spices and maple syrup, stuffed into sheep’s casing, cured for a day, smoked over white oak for six hours, then hung to dry for four days. The result is a delicious, traditional-style hot dog prepared on a griddle, served with a potato bun and topped with yellow mustard, sour relish or – for that Montreal touch – chopped white onion. For a New York classic, garnish yours with simple brown deli mustard and sauerkraut.

And pushing New York’s hotdog boundaries is Asia Dog. This one-time roving hot dog stand recently opened a brick-and-mortar spot in Manhattan’s fashionable Nolita neighbourhood. Despite their permanence, Asia Dog remain a fixture on New York’s street fair, flea market and farmers’ market scenes, where their hot dogs are topped with a smorgasbord of fresh Asian-inspired ingredients. Kimchi, Japanese curry, Chinese barbeque pork belly and seaweed flakes are a handful of what one can expect atop their beef, chicken or veggie dogs.